by ANDRES D.S. WILSON
The Birrah had begun. The elders were mid-circle, points around which all converged. They were so close to the fire that they could have been burnt. Tifaona's face was a waterfall breaking in the darkness. None of them was anything, anyone but moving darkness, with baritone voices betraying their locations around the flames like a spotlight of sound. On the outer reaches of the circle, children kicked clouds of dust into the air to be illuminated by the hungry fire, forming a canopy of particles around them. Beer was thrown to and fro, masking the smell of pestilence under rotten grain, blood, piss, and drunkenness. Voices from each end of the tonal spectrum pounced the rhythms of their dance, coalescing with the talking drums. The members of this Shona community had greatly diminished over the last month, and the doctors from Medecins sans frontières had done all that they could. Now, only the ancestors could pinpoint the iniquity that had ushered retribution into the village.
Khris sat by the side, many yards away from his brethren, periodically standing up to swipe at the eager, biting-flies above his head. To his ears, their buzzing had become a personal ceremony played out in a stuttered whirling. His navy-blue school uniform was drenched in sweat from the heat of African midnight. The patch with gold trim on the right side of his chest that read "The British School" was starting to come undone from his jacket and, although he knew he didn't need it in this heat, he continued to wear it anyway. He watched his brother Munashe swing a chicken’s head through the air and his whirling circles within the glare of the flame were like orgiastic fireflies or crashing comets.
"No light but rather darkness visible," he said to himself, quoting Milton.
The British school that he had attended for over nine years, like most other things for kilometers around, had been closed until further notice.
Mudiwa was called to the board to conjugate the verb “parere”. Stumbling up, she hobbled down the aisle to the front toward the blackboard, passing him on her left. She grazed his shoulder on her way and he rubbed it with his thin fingers as if a fleck of mud or excrement had fallen on him. When she got there, she stalled. Her brow wrinkled and her knees wobbled. Two minutes must have passed. Mr. Wilton urged her, "Mudiwa, please begin,” but her lips were as rigid and thin as the cracks in an urban sidewalk. Finally a sound emerged "pa...re...pa..."
It was interrupted. The boy yelled out, "Perhaps your father can command a dead chicken to decline Latin verbs for you." The class let out a malignant wave of cackling laughter. Another student chimed in from the back "Where are the ancestors now, mu ga mu gah mu mu," to another clatter of approval. From the front of the classroom, Mudiwa's tightly wound tresses appeared as if they would come undone and begin to slither like the serpentine locks of Medusa. Of course, they didn't.
"Fine, I see it is not your day. Sit down, please." Mr. Wilton looked at his watch and sighed as he often did while attempting to teach unresponsive children Cicero, Virgil, Shakespeare. (The ignorant have bliss; why would they need wisdom?) The children saw him. As Mudiwa hobbled back to her seat, she appeared hypnotized, walking toward the boy and contorting as she walked like a spirit claiming revenge until her feet gave way and her knees collapsed beneath her, meeting the floor with a muffled thud. She fell at the boy's feet muttering something indistinct to him in Shona. Her blue skirt betraying a miserable wetness. He looked down at her, equally fixated on and repelled by her incontinence. They all watched like the anonymous eyes that peer from a dark forest. Suddenly, a roar of laughter arose from the children like that of an angry lion, filling the classroom. And that in itself was a sound so deep and dark that it reverberated endlessly; it was the crashing of a tower, or a night in the jungle.
"Kefilwe, why do you not join us," Munashe had walked to his brother from the circle leaving it to find him. He was a bit taller than Khris with mounds of muscle under his soiled collared shirt.
"Because this is ridiculous. Let the doctors do their job and forget about this for Christ's sake." Khris was sitting on the wooden steps to his family's shack. As he stood up to stretch his legs a button popped off of the shirt that he had been wearing beneath his school blazer, revealing a little gold cross around his neck. Munashe glanced at it and quickly turned away as if he had accidentally seen a woman who was forbidden to him naked.
"They must do as tradition commands. He is great for the big things," Munashe pointed toward the accidental finding around his brother's neck, "but how can he help us with the practical, with the here and now?"
Munashe rolled his "r" and spoke with hardly any of English's characteristic diphthongs.
"It does not matter; if our village is dying perhaps God wills it."
"How could your God will something like this? Why would you pray to him? Perhaps our ancestors can convince him to have mercy on us. Perhaps the Lion will come and redeem us. Perhaps..."
The Lion was the Shona’s totem animal—graceful, strong, loyal, yet threatening. This connection gave the people a certain forgivable superciliousness.
"But it doesn't matter," Khris stood up for good this time, stomping on his steps. His hut was one of the few that had not been quarantined in this part of the village. He could come and go as he pleased. "Even if we can change this situation, maybe we shouldn't consult the ancestors. Maybe the dead should remain at rest until..."
The voices grew louder around the circle, the banging of drums more ferocious. The wind rustled through the bushes in the distance and even the rustling was a crescendo.
"What...we are all with them? Kefilwe, think of our father. Would he want us on the outside as the elders and the rest of the tribe summoned him? What toxins have the British fed you?"
Khris began to scratch himself, taking up mounds of cells beneath his fingernails as if he were trying to erase an inscription that had been carved into stone.
Mudiwa ran across the playground, a group of six Shona boys behind her like a tail or a long, ineluctable bullet making its journey in slow motion. She was tall and gangly and ran with the same bounce as any other girl her age but her limp kept her from gong very far.
She had been born with only one toe on her right foot, and it stood on end like a shark’s tooth. Were it not for her exceptionally long legs, they would have already gained on her, but her strides remained wider and more desperate than theirs. There were bushes behind the school. There were bushes everywhere, green and majestic, a nearly silent canopy of that hush that never ceases. She became the Shona Daphne, and the jungle was her laurel. But the bushes and the jungle beyond them that led to their village were off-limits to them until after school, as if to create a gate between two countries or two worlds. She turned and looked for Mr. Wilton, Mrs. Butler, as if any of them could help.
Her arm was now scraped and bleeding from when she had tripped earlier in the pursuit, and pebbles began to congeal to her dark skin. Then came the rocks.
They let them fly like the names that they had always called.
She had no other choice; she had to run back to the village. As she entered the bushes, five of the boys stopped in their tracks as most children do when they come across something dead or otherwise foreboding. But one did not. She ran again, bushes scraping her legs to the rhythm of the sounds of animals of whom her father, Tifaona had told her. She had never seen many of them up close, but he warned her never to be afraid. The lion was the king of the jungle and he was their totem animal who commanded them all. "Respect all life and it will in turn respect you," he would repeat sententiously. She never turned back, never even turned to glimpse her tail.
Running, running, she heard the jangling of jewelry, perhaps a bracelet or a necklace crashing against flesh. The sound grew louder, closer more rapid like a surging pulse. She couldn't stop. Where were the teachers? Where was her father? Where were the ancestors? Where was the Nazarene? She felt a cold hand on her back forcing her to the ground, vegetation along with her feet met the air. She could see the sun, like a mosaic of purple and orange, hot and balmy as she grew closer to it, then with a snap and a crack her back felt the ground, and the back of her head submerged into a jagged rock. She heard a lion roar and then there was no sun.
"We have no other choice," Tifaona said, forcing his cane into the dusty ground at his feet, "our people are like ghosts before they even join the ancestors.
One by one they fall, almost every day for the past three weeks. This must be stopped. And the doctors know nothing."
"But their methods may prevail," Kundai said, his dark lips retracting in upward in anticipation of his elder brother's response.
"Will their methods help me to find her?" Tifaona thought out loud as he wedged his cane deeper still into the dusty ground as if he were trying to dig for something beneath its surface.
"Maybe she ran away, you know the things that come with their Western education."
"Never, not Mudiwa. She is...was...is my best. A birrah will dispel the root of our iniquity... only a birrah." He pulled his cane from out of the ground and stood in silence.
The pulse of the Birrah grew more and more frenzied and the baritone voices trembled, collapsing into an exhausted, tinny sound like a glass being smashed over and over again, ad infinitum. Khris began to sweat even more but he wouldn't remove his blazer. Instead, he unbuttoned another button of his shirt exposing his bare chest and allowing his cross necklace to breathe even more. The distant blaze began to reflect his cross, dancing within it as if the religion of his heathen ancestors and that of a distant East had slowly fused. Chris saw the reflection grow taller and wider. He looked up and watched it grow in front of him, swaying like a tree in a hurricane; it had been hypnotized and commanded to dance. Kefilwe had rejoined the circle and as he looked his eyes met those of Tifaona. Ordinarily, the shaman didn't smile or acknowledge the boy on the fringe of their community. But this time their eyes wouldn't unlock and it was in Tifaona's eyes that he first saw the lion, as a reflection from the bushes.
The music grew louder and the whispers whirled around him like the menace of a rumor. He broke from the lock and looked out. The bushes beyond his village parted until they were open like the gate of a royal courtyard. Khris rent his blazer and ripped it from his shoulders, falling to his knees.
"I'm so sorry," he cried and his voice was amplified as by unknown echoes so the whole village could hear his words. "I'm so sorry for what I've done," he held his necklace tightly against his body, sobbing and muttering phrases in Shona under his breath.
The drums were royal trumpets, heralding their king, and from behind the gates the royal guest hurried toward the boy, his golden mane expanding and contracting in the wind, the powerful and bouncy gait of an animal king. His roar grew frenetic, matching the ceaseless cacophony of the drums. He came closer and closer to the boy at his knees, taking flight a few yards from him with his mouth wide open. Rising to his feet, Kefilwe ran toward his king, jumping above the mountainous blaze. The Lion's mouth sprung open violently, his teeth glistening above the fire like a terrible constellation. The boy entered the lion's mouth in mid-air just before the mighty king slammed it shut with a thud. Then, as he plummeted and fell into the hallowed flame, there was no longer a trace of either.
Andrés Amitai Wilson was named after the famed classical guitarist, Andrés Segovia. Currently finishing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, he works as an educator, musician, and writer, in eerie Western Massachusetts. When not reading, writing, or playing, chances are quite good that you can find him with his elfin daughter, Eden, on a bicycle, or atop his yoga mat. www.andreswilson.com
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